The Church has a beautiful treasury of prayer and liturgy for facing the end of life.
By Peter Jesserer Smith
Before he had an opportunity to celebrate a baptism or marriage, Christian rites that mark the beginning of new life, the newly ordained Deacon Michael Forrest was assisting at the Christian rites that mark the end of life for two people close to his heart.
“Before I had a chance to breathe, I was serving at a dear friend’s funeral, a friend who wanted to be at my ordination,” he said. Soon thereafter, his own mother passed away.
“It was my mother who once told me way back in the day that I should be a minister,” Deacon Forrest, a former Baptist, recalled. He had held his mother’s hand on the vigil of her death, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet before she passed away the following morning. “She held on until after I was ordained.”
For Deacon Forrest, celebrating the Church’s funeral rites was an intensely emotional experience. But their architecture, he said, conveys “the sense of God’s great mercy and loving-kindness.”
The Catholic Church provides beautiful rites and devotions that help people squarely face death with the hope of the resurrection and turn their mourning into intercession on behalf of their loved ones. The Church’s funeral rites are divided into three main parts: the vigil service, the funeral Mass and the Rite of Committal (for burial or internment).
The vigil service is a special Liturgy of the Word. It can be held in the funeral home (at the wake), or in the church itself where the funeral Mass is to be subsequently held. “Having the vigil service allowed loved ones to come forward,” Deacon Forrest said, explaining it offers opportunities for prayer and for loved ones to offer reflections on the life of the person who has died.
Deacon Forrest said that many people today have a “Celebration of Life” when their loved one dies. He said that, while there is an important place for that, the Catholic funeral rites help a person come to grips with the full ramifications of death and what it means for their lives. “The Catholic rites, whether it is the funeral Mass or the vigil service, resonate with us on some level precisely because we know it is true and we need this,” he said. “We see this ability to face the reality, face the fear, face the brokenness, and to say, ‘No, we have an answer. You can trust your God who is going to deliver,’” he said.
The funeral Mass is also heavily laden with symbolism. The Roman Rite makes explicit connections between the deceased person’s baptism and the funeral rite, such as having the Paschal candle, which is a reminder of the hope of the resurrection. It also has prayers of thanksgiving for that person’s life. The laying on of the funeral pall is also reminiscent of one’s baptismal garment. The Church in the U.S., he said, has an indult to use white vestments at funerals. He said traditionally the Church ordinarily uses black or purple for funeral colors for a deceased Catholic who has attained the use of reason. These traditional colors intend to affirm the person’s experience of the desolation of death, while having white or gold trim on the black and violet vestments is meant to remind people of the hope of the resurrection. The incensing and sprinkling rites at a Catholic funeral, he said, also remind people that this person was baptized and anointed as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
At the graveside committal, the resurrection is invoked in the prayers. Deacon Forrest said between the devotions and public rites of the Church, a Catholic does not have to sit with their grief, but can “transform it through faith, hope and love in concrete ways.” He added, “These are all things a person can do to harness that grief and, through faith, turn that into an engine of salvation and healing.”